Aug 09, 2012

Uncleftish Beholding: What We Have Left After Linguistic Purism Takes Hold

written by Jeanette Koenig

In my last blog, I talked about how English has far more borrowed words than native ones in its vocabulary. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a remarkable piece I came across recently, called “Uncleftish Beholding ,”  written by the late science fiction writer Poul Anderson . This article, which is about basic atomic theory, was composed almost exclusively in what is called Anglish (English consisting only of native Anglo-Saxon words). This is no mean task when you consider that most scientific and technical words in English are formed from Latin, Greek, or French roots. The title, which means “atomic theory,” stems from the facts that the word “atom”, derived from Greek, means “not cut” (because atoms were originally believed to be indivisible), and “theory” comes from a Greek word meaning “contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at .”

Here is a short excerpt from the article:

The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The dependence of English on foreign forms comes to light when you try to decipher the essay, which is something of a challenge. The more you remember from high school chemistry, the easier it is. For example, if you know that hydrogen is the lightest element and uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring one (on earth), it is clear from the passage above that “waterstuff” refers to “hydrogen” and “ymirstuff”, to “uranium.”

Far more interesting, however, are the various methods by which Anderson arrived at native equivalents for words that did not exist in the English vocabulary back before the influx of foreign borrowings. German speakers will identify “waterstuff” as a calque (literal translation) of “Wasserstoff”; for the rest of us, it is probably sufficient to note that the hydro- in hydrogen means “water.” For “ymirstuff”, “aegirstuff”, and “helstuff”, you would need to know something about Norse and Greek mythology to recognize that Ymir was a giant similar to Uranus, and Aeger was the Norse god of the sea, corresponding to Neptune. Where does that leave “helstuff”? Well, who was the Greek god of the underworld?

Where possible, Anderson extends the usage of known words, such as replacing “nucleus” with “kernel” and “particle” with “mote”. Another technique is to use somewhat archaic words or archaic meanings, for example, “ken”, which he combines to form “worldken”, “science,” and “minglingken”, “chemistry”; and “tale”, whose very archaic meaning actually means “number.” Finally, Anderson simply coined his own original words, such as “lightrotting” for “radioactive decay.”

Space forbids me from pointing out all of the clever nuggets to be found in “Uncleftish Beholding,” but I highly recommend it for anyone who has even a remote interest in etymology or in creative word formation. At any rate, this article should illustrate the extent to which English has relied on other languages in its development of scientific vocabulary. Have a look for yourself and see how much you can decipher. Poul Anderson, “Uncleftish Beholding,” Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, volume 109, no. 13, pp. 132–135, mid-December 1989, Davis Publications. Reprinted in All One Universe. Tor Science Fiction (May 15, 1997) pp. 121 – 126.

A link to the full article can be found here:

Online Etymology Dictionary. Theory. Web. 08 May 20120. 

At this point, it is tempting to become pedantic and dispute Anderson’s claim that the premise of this article is that it takes place in an alternate universe where the Norman Conquest never happened. What does the Norman Conquest have to do with using mythological characters to name planets discovered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? (According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, uranium was named after the newly-discovered planet Uranus, and neptunium and plutonium took their names because, following the planets, Neptune and Pluto came next.) More likely, the essay demonstrates a xenophobic reaction in this alternate universe after the Normans were ousted from England.


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